Sunday, July 27, 2008

PRINCIPLE ONE: Don't criticize, condemn or complain.

"Do you know someone you would like to change and regulate and improve? ... Why not begin on yourself?" - Dale Carnegie, HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE


I would say that this first principle has been something of a bitch to apply to my life, but that would be a complaint. And, if I am dedicated to this process, I can't be dedicated to it halfway. Of course, Carnegie admits that he found himself backsliding in regard to this one. It's a process, and all I have to do is get better at it. I can do that.

It turns out my tattered paperback is not a copy that once belonged to my father, though my mom told me that he took the seminar when he was working for Hartford Insurance in the '70s. My copy just looks old. It turns out that my well-intentioned, oftentimes too-involved mother bought me this book to try and motivate me to get along with people and behave like a normal, undepressed kid when I was in high school, and I ignored it - except to carry it around with me from move to move to move until its pages yellowed and its cover got stained and beaten to hell. She routinely used to mention the book to me as though it could solve all my social problems and help me fit into future workplace environments. (She thinks it helped my dad with relationships and success, though would he be a divorced, twice-laid-off insurance exec if he'd really, really been good at keeping friends?)

I think I carried it from move to move because I thought it belonged to my dad, but the back cover mentions that it's been updated for life in the "complex and competitive" 1990s - and he stopped living at our house in 1982.

So, by reading this book after she told me to do so for years and years and years, my mother's arrow has reached its intended target. I'm reading the book. So the next time she tells me that I'd be better off if I'd read it, I can scoff and reply sarcastically with, "Oh yeah, well, I have ..." Except that it'd be really, really negative to say something like that, and it isn't even that funny. She means well, even if it comes off as dismissively judgmental sometimes to my ears, which have been honed to interpret everything intended as helpful with a degree of skepticism and venom.

I've been living with her for two months, and she's been good and nice and patient. I should have more in savings than I do, and I should be further along in my apartment search than I am.

There is much in my life that I need to work on. It seems too small to work on the fact that I'm a self-involved smartass. But maybe it'll be like dominoes, one thing will affect the next until a sea change comes in my attitudes and situations.

In trying to explain the backstory of how I picked this book and why this book in particular is the one I'm blogging about, though, it should be said that this was my mom's go-to suggestion of how to "fix" me whenever I had hardship or was having difficulty in friendships or work. This book was the salve she suggested I apply to my damaged psyche, and she told me that it did wonders for my father, with whom I have a sometimes connected, sometimes utterly disconnected relationship. So that's the "why" of the blog. I want to see my mother's remedy and my father's fabled "inspiration" affect my life.

So here's how I've applied the first principle this week:


I was nice to my stepfather whenever I saw him, asking him his opinions of what he watched on TV and saying hello whenever we were in the same room. And, this week, when he cleaned three rooms of the house while my mother was at work, I was impressed and maintained a good opinion of him. (Of course, it leads me to wonder how much cleaning I should be doing. But, well, I'm usually only at the house awake between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m.)

So, well, my stepdad vaccuumed, and I thought it was a cool thing for him to do.

In my communications with my improv teacher Jim, I've tried to be positive and encouraging, asking him - a little too bluntly and obviously after going on about myself for days before picking up the book - how I can be a better friend to him (in an e-mail that he didn't answer). And I tried to be upbeat in an e-mail reply to an announcement he sent me about an improv show he had this weekend (which he also did not reply to).

I shouldn't have made my attempts at positivity so blatant, such a 180-degree turn from the last conversation I had with him on Tuesday where I worried too much, criticized myself extensively and then asked him to hug me. When I tried talking to him this week, it came off as a desperate attempt to make amends, fix things and restore order. In short, I was a handful for him this week, and a freaked-out overreaction from me probably won't restore his faith in me that things are going to get better.

I need to chill with him, and I need to relax. In the meantime, I'm going to try a positive, smile, quieter poker face.

And I'll let you know how it goes. (He does not read this blog.)

I had another good dinner with my friend Kurt, who does read this blog. At one point, I made a self-effacing comment about whether he actually thinks I'm cute - which he's said. It was just another way that I was condemning myself. It was wrong to do that, particularly in the way that it seemed like I was just digging for compliments from someone whose friendship has been a reliable, reassuring thing that I can trust.

Kurt saw the book, and he asked me how old the copy was. That's what prompted the realization that my copy was put to press in the '90s.

The most significant chance I had to apply these principles this week, and the one that I've been most unsure about addressing, was my trip to a guy's apartment on Friday night. We will call him "D," even though I don't think he reads this blog (and probably won't in the future). I've not blogged about my personal life in quite some time, but, if I'm going to examine how these principles are affecting my life, I would be remiss if I didn't mention - at least in part - what happened on Friday night because HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE and this project was mentioned specifically.

Shortly after I arrived, D saw that I had the paperback in my hand and asked me how it was going. I told him that it was going pretty well, though I said I was having a difficult time remaining positive and not complaining about stuff. I mean, I was aware that I complain a lot - for I know my temperament - but, geez, so much of what I say is negative.

I mean, it's almost as though "guy who bitches about things and people in a clever way" is who I want to be known as. (OK, it's a lot like that's who I want to be.) I'd never realized so completely as I did this week that being "that guy" is a silly thing to really want to be. I've done a lot of damage to myself by being that guy. If you want to be a harsh, critical, melodramatic person, why is it a surprise that you need help winning friends?

D sorta playfully mock-criticized the book, the way I always have with my mom. When he heard the first principle, D said that much of what he says is a complaint, criticism or condemnation. (We have that in common.) And it didn't seem to be a temperament that he wanted to lose. He said that people come to him for that sort of spice. (It was yet another moment this month when I felt, with D, like I was dating someone with my exact personality, and these moments kinda horrified me.) And, when he said that, I thought about whether I wanted that in a boyfriend, someone as jaded and bitter as I have been. I know what it's like to pride yourself on your negative temperament. (I still do it.) But how can I get better if I am growing close with someone who doesn't appreciate that I'm trying to improve or thinks that it'd be a stupid thing to try? I know I've made jokes, but I want to explore this process seriously. His reaction was such a bummer.

The remainder of the evening went downhill from that. There were some good moments, some fun. I really, really wanted to connect with this guy, for we did have things in common. And I would like to connect with someone.

At one point, my mind was wandering about things that weren't working, and D asked me if everything was OK.

"I'm not supposed to condemn, criticize or complain," I said in a smart-alecky way.

It was our third and probably last date.

I saw a lot of myself in that guy. I saw a lot of what I want to change about myself in that guy.

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